Quake victims shiver in ruins of Soviet promises

Armenia/ forgotten tragedy
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The Independent Online
THE FREIGHT trains, stuffed with medicines and rumbling five score a day into this shivering, earthquake-shattered Armenian city in December 1988, carried an exhilarating hope - that Moscow might actually deliver on a promise by Mikhail Gorbachev to rebuild the ruins.

Six-and-a-half-years later, the same railway cars carry a more dispiriting cargo - and a bleak message to what, through man-made and natural catastrophe, is now an archipelago of ruined and mostly forgotten towns across the former Soviet Union.

The metal containers that brought relief in 1988 to Armenia today house tens of thousands of despairing people, left homeless by the great Armenian earthquake and still sheltering in rusty, airless boxes scattered across a landscape of rubble.

"Gorbachev promised us he would rebuild the whole city in two years," said Mikhail Vardanian, a former puppet theatre artist, veteran of the war in Nagorny Karabakh and now the mayor of Gyumri, the post-Soviet name of what used to be Leninakan. "But the Gorbachev programme was just another myth."

From his office on the third floor of one of the few multi-storey buildings left standing, Mr Vardanian surveys a vista of shanty settlements, collapsed concrete and abandoned construction sites. His father was among the 25,000 who perished.

So colossal was the destruction in Leninakan, Spitak and other towns in 1988 that Mr Gorbachev, then general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, cut short a trip to New York and rushed to Armenia to inspect the devastation and promise a rapid renaissance. He even lifted a Soviet taboo on accepting disaster relief from abroad. No longer a Soviet satrap, Armenia is today independent. It is also alone.

The damage Mr Gorbachev vowed to fix here has since been replicated in other former Soviet republics and in Russia itself. So has the frustration.

What nature did to Leninakan in 1988 has since been done by man to Sukhumi, a Black Sea resort ravaged by war in 1993, and also to the Chechen capital of Grozny, smashed by Russian shells early this year. The republic of Tajikistan too is littered with the wreckage of civil war.

Last week the grim catalogue was joined by yet another pile of rubble - the town of Neftegorsk, a remote town in Russia's Far East obliterated by the worst earthquake to hit the former Soviet Union since Armenia's.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin has vowed to spare no effort to bring relief to survivors in Neftegorsk, where collapsed buildings entomb more than 1,000 people. He has also promised to rebuild Grozny, a city of 400,000 reduced to ruins reminiscent of those left by the Second World War.

If the experience of Armenia is any indication, the prognosis for such urban wrecks is bleak. In Gyumri, the biggest city hit by the 1988 quake, around half of a population of 210,000 live in packing crates, freight containers known as vagonchiki and other makeshift shelters.

"It is hell in those containers in winter. And winter here lasts for six months," said Mr Vardanian. Many of the buildings that did not crumble lie empty and abandoned, their walls cracked, their window frames and doors torn out by local authorities for use in the promised construction boom that, after a brief spurt of activity, quickly fizzled out.

Conceived by Mr Gorbachev as a model of Soviet solidarity, with relief workers and construction teams pouring in from across the land, the reconstruction programme became instead the last, feeble gasp of Moscow's disintegrating authority. As each of 15 republics gained their independence, generosity towards Armenia, no longer enforced, dried up. "All the republics came to help us," said Mr Vardanian, the mayor. "Many new buildings were started. But most were never finished. After independence, the workers went home."

Foreign relief workers lingered longer. Among the few buildings completed was the Lord Byron School, built with British funds near the tangled wreckage of a department store. Next door is the Margaret Thatcher Hotel - a portakabin hauled in to house foreign aid workers but now deserted apart from a grumpy manageress, her sickly friend and a mangy dog.

"All we got was promises," complained Alvina Gaifajian. "It is better to die than keep living like this. I forgot about eating meat years ago. I can't even remember its colour."

Before the earthquake, this city was one of the main industrial centres for the entire Caucasus region. Its main textile factory processed some 500 tons of cotton a day from Central Asia. Today, it gets only 15 tons a year. The damage wrought by the quake has been exacerbated by power shortages that have left the city without electricity for all but two hours a day. Half the population is unemployed.

The lessons of the 1988 tragedy have been almost entirely ignored. Volodya Neshisian, a retired builder, used to live in a five-storey prefab block on Leningradsky Street. The building, built in Nikita Khrushchev's crash housing programme of the 1960s, fell down - as did identical blocks in Neftegorsk last week.

Mr Neshisian's family of nine now live in vagonchiki near the remnants of a once-splendid 19th century cathedral. "We are going to die in this metal crate. We either live here or out in the street," he said.

His son, a former soldier, has just returned home from war in Nagorny Karabakh. Wounded three times in battles with Azerbaijan and decorated for bravery by the Armenian president, he has no job, sees little future and clings desperately to what he hopes might be his passport out of this ruined city - a crumpled business card from a dry-cleaner's in Detroit. He found it in the pocket of a jacket sent from America in a shipment of second-hand clothing. With all the other promises long forgotten, the business card is cherished as a sacred relic - a sign that someone somewhere still remembers what happened.

There will be no such comfort or false hope for the survivors of Neftegorsk. Mr Yeltsin, in a spasm of old-style Kremlin paranoia, has decreed that Russia needs no help from abroad. Moscow, he promises, can cope with its disasters alone.